TCM Classic Film Festival and Wild River (1960)

45-year-old Jo Van Fleet as octogenarian Ella Garth in Wild River.

The three-and-a-half-day TCM Classic Film Festival wraps up today with the North American premiere of the newly restored Metropolis (1927) tonight. The Festival has been somewhat of an experiment in its first year, screening good prints of well known films in the heart of Hollywood for a high fee ($20 per screening if seats are available, or $500 passes). Most Angelenos think the Festival is prohibitively expensive, but that may be because we can see titles like 2001: A Space Odyssey or Playtime in 70mm here on a regular basis.

The Festival seems well attended (though by no means sold-out), virtually everyone has a pass around their neck, and line conversations revolve around hotels and air flights. A man seated next to me yesterday (from New Orleans) speculated that maybe only 10-20% of the audience was local. That’s all well and good for TCM and those who can afford festival tourism in this economy, but it does raise questions about film festivals and their relationships with host cities in general.

More interesting for Angelenos, the program has included a few rare or recently restored films. The highlight for me has been Elia Kazan’s Wild River (1960), purportedly the first color film set in the Depression South. In 2002, it was added to the National Film Registry–a decided improvement over the indifference with which it was initially greeted–and it was recently restored by the Film Foundation (with help from the Academy Film Archive and Fox). It begins unconventionally with a montage of black-and-white documentary footage depicting devastation caused by the flooding of the Tennessee River, capped by a heartrending interview with an exhausted survivor who stands in the mud and describes family members who have drowned.

What follows is a dramatization of the newly formed Tennessee Valley Authority and its efforts to acquisition the river and surrounding land from private owners to build a network of dams that will usher in technological progress but erase local history. Such themes are more widespread in movies from other parts of the world–Jia Zhang-ke’s 2006 masterpiece, Still Life, about the Three Gorges Dam in China, springs to mind–but less prevalent in American cinema. (Apparently, Kazan worked on a labor documentary in 1938 close to the setting of Wild River, and nursed the feature for 25 years through an assortment of writers.)

Montgomery Clift plays Chuck Glover, a bookish, emotionally withdrawn TVA employee who has to convince the last private landowner, 80-year-old Ella Garth, to sell her island before the waters rise. He is utterly stymied, however, both by the elderly woman’s steely resolve not to sell, and by the region’s racial politics when he offers good-paying jobs to Garth’s black workers and upsets the local businessmen. Fortunately, Glover’s budding romantic relationship with Garth’s widowed daughter-in-law (Lee Van Cleef) becomes an empowering and provocative force in his life and those around them.

Increasing the sense of a world transitioning from old to new is the story’s chilly autumnal setting; the leafless trees, misty river, and overgrown grasses of Garth’s island are captured in stark CinemaScope, making it seem near the brink of death even before it submerges forever. Late-career Clift is ideally suited for expressing the subtle modulations of Glover’s awkward interactions with others; his nervous ticks reach a fevered erotic pitch in conjunction with Van Cleef’s passionate, unbridled earthiness. The film is a simmering character study for much of its length, hinging on difficult exchanges perennially caught between private/public, urban/rural, male/female tensions, fighting to emerge from deep within the characters’ psyches as they try to give expression to feelings they cannot define. It’s likely that its first audiences thought it was emotionally convoluted and slow-moving with little release, and it is–which is precisely why it’s also gripping and lingering.

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